It is the art fair the celebs descend on, but don’t dismiss its creative influence just because of a little glitz, says Anthony Haden-Guest.
It wasn’t long before the opening of Art Basel Miami Beach that the Miami-Dade police raided Lil Wayne’s mansion. The rap star, born Dwayne Michael Carter Jr, owed $2 million in unpaid fees for leasing private jets, and the lawmen went in to seize art from a collection valued at $30 million. They took an expert to value the material, but none of the reports was specific as to just what the rap star had accumulated. But the bust did indicate the increasing breadth and depth of the collector base in the new art world, and one report listed other heavy hitters in music who have become players in the Contemporary art world too.
As a global attention-getter Art Basel Miami Beach has become something like the art-world equivalent of the Oscars, and it has certainly played a part in extending the reach of the Contemporary art world. That said, the actual art does not always dominate coverage of the goings-on, which, both in mass media and in fat glossy magazines, tends to focus on celebrity attendance, branding tie-ups and party pictures of the scenesters who fly in for the merry-making and who wouldn’t recognise a Carl Andre if they trod on one or a Richard Serra if it fell on them.
So it was unsurprising that Hillary Clinton had a fundraiser at ABMB in December. As did Jeb Bush, causing the online journal Slate to comment tartly: ‘Art Basel is a hip art-fashion-film-advertising exhibition/series of parties at which you will see people like James Franco. It is in other words a very unlikely place to find a Republican presidential candidate who is noticeably awkward even compared with other Republican politicians.’
One of the gossip industry’s sharper-eyed outfits, the New York Post’s Page Six, devoted an entire page to a Who Was Who at the parties, and notably few actual artists or dealers got to be bold face names. The Page Sixers reported at one swank do that ‘discussing this year’s crop of art at the fair were tennis pro, Venus Williams, [food charity] God’s Love We Deliver vice chair, Blaine Trump and Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon’. I really wish I could have heard that exchange of views.
Such hoopla means that ABMB tends to be attacked by purists more than the other big-city fairs. Well, I think it’s a huge plus. The hype can go over the top, but these are the elements that have embedded the Contemporary art world in the broader culture and preserved it from evolving into a specialist pursuit, like poetry and jazz. Anyway, the high jinks mostly take place in the evenings. The days are given over to art-crawling, thinking about art, sometimes actually buying art, and this was especially so in December for the 77,000 who made an appearance (4,000 more than 2014) because four days of steady rain removed the option of sneaking off to the beach. Add a traffic crawl-rate which worsens yearly and this time made central London seem like Le Mans, and you found yourself glued willy-nilly to what you came for in the first place.
There were 275 international galleries in the main event, and there were more than a dozen satellite fairs. There were the private collectors who open up for the event, there were pop-ups, both plain and fancy, and there were the contenders who came on the scene fairly recently, such as the Perez Art Museum (the former Miami Museum) and the Faena Foundation. Then there’s Design Miami, the Wolfsonian, and on and on.
So where to go? That was down to word of mouth, instinct, habit, luck, and, of course, those seductive parties.
But Unrealism was clearly a must. There’s a back-story. Craig Robins, a developer and a co-founder of Design Miami, had offered the mega-dealer Larry Gagosian a floor in the Moore Building in the Design District. Gagosian remarkably brought in a former rival, Jeffrey Deitch, who had closed his gallery for a turbulent and shortlived run as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Deitch was now back, and the project they came up with was a show that would spotlight the number of artists who were returning to figuration — the human figure very much included — so the show was clearly a counterstrike against the wishy-washy derivative abstraction that has been all over galleries and auction houses recently and which painter/critic Walter Robinson has bitingly described as ‘Zombie Formalism’.
The Moore Building, one of the most striking spaces in Miami, was further invigorated by an internal cobwebbing which stretched from floor to floor (the work of the late Zaha Hadid), and there were powerful pieces in the show by the artists you would have hoped to see there, such as John Currin, Glenn Brown and Jenny Saville, including the aforementioned Walter Robinson, as well as a group of younger female artists — Ella Kruglyanskaya, Jamian Juliano-Villani, Tala Madani, Sascha Braunig, Emily Mae Smith — put together by Deitch.
The stand-out for me was Joe Coleman. Coleman, an artist I have long admired enormously, was showing just two canvases, paintings of his wife, and he has been working on them for ten years. He is what would normally be described as an Outsider artist. This is a term he finds condescending and dislikes, but he is, I think, wrong on this. It simply means an artist who operates outside the art world and who makes no product — who means every single stroke. Deitch’s inclusion of Coleman in this show was itself a meaningful stroke. Outsider art has usually been shown at specialist galleries and in specialist Outsider art fairs, like the one in New York in late January.
Some Outsiders are schizophrenics (like the artists Jean Dubuffet presented as Art Brut), some were untrained, working-class, such as the
Cornish seaman Alfred Wallis — but others are just obstinately Outside, like Coleman. And their prices are rising. Good works by Henry Darger and Adolf Wölfli are getting six figures. This is good, but it’s nowhere near where they will be going. ‘They are no different from any other greats,’ Coleman says.
Which is one of the raisons d’être of a major art fair. Yes, you can trawl the aisles of ABMB and of satellites, such as Scope and Untitled, and you’ll scrutinise the good, the bad and the ugly from all the usual suspects, but you can also see new energies, new names and faces, fresh material you are most unlikely to have seen elsewhere. At the brand-new art fair X Contemporary Miami, a small but multiple-locationed gallery, Art Collective, had a roster of artists who had never shown outside Cuba before. They were powerful stuff.
Also there was, of course, Celebrity art at the fair. Lenny Kravitz, the rock star, had a show of photographs up at the Ligne Roset Gallery in the Design District, curated by Reiner Opoku, a founder of the St Moritz-based art fair Art Masters. Kravitz’s pictures in the show, Flash, snapped the paparazzi snapping him. So they were Celebrity photographs about being a celebrity. And they were strong images.
So we’re back to art and fame, which is exactly how this piece began.